The Japanese sure do like reboots. For whatever reason, they seem to accept them much more readily than US audiences do, although we’re really getting on the bandwagon these days with a new take on Spiderman right on the heels of a dismal Broadway overproduction and a trilogy of films, only one of which was worth a second viewing. The Zatoichi series is even bigger than Spiderman in Japan, of course, so it’s no big surprise that filmmakers have been coming up with new takes on the blind swordsman since the demise of the original Ichi, Shintaro Katsu in 1997. Takeshi Kitano’s film was a fun excursion in chanbara from the Japanese funny man, and I think it was accepted largely because it was so different. Kitano was definitely trying not to be Katsu’s Ichi. Then came the female version, simply titled Ichi, which, while beautiful to watch, was somewhat overplayed by all involved. Now, we have Zatoichi: The Last, the 2010 film by Junji Sakamoto.
I’m not sure what Sakamoto and the screenwriter(s), who aren’t credited on IMDB, had in mind here, but the result is a mess. I believe there’s an okay film in there somewhere, but the final edit leaves a lot to be desired. We begin with a married Ichi declaring that he’s off to his final fight, only to have his wife killed in a mishap. Instead of seeking revenge, he returns to his childhood home only to sort of become involved in a village dispute with an evil oyabun. While the latter plot will be familiar to anyone who’s seen even a single Z film from the past, the whole wife angle changes the character considerably. Instead of being a wandering masseur, he is now a broken family man. After his loss, Ichi becomes depressed and withdrawn. To say this film is humorless is an understatement. Sadly, it’s also saddled with a narrative that’s strangely difficult to follow in this cut. Since Ichi is no longer cast as a man of action, we don’t get much of a chance to root for him in this overly long exercise in tedium.
I don’t really get the title, since it seems that this script may have originally been conceived as an origin story of sorts. If it had been that, I could see where it could have succeeded. Just imagine the story of a young, married, Ichi who works for the yakuza as an assassin, then gives up that life only to have his family ripped away. In his search for revenge he could have emerged from his cocoon of pain with a better understanding of himself and a desire to change his ways and help to defend others. Ichi is born and strides off into the sunset to become Shintaro Katsu’s generous and helpful blind masseur of old. It’s too bad they didn’t go this way. It might have given this film a backbone. Instead we just get cinematic pablum that has some of the trappings of the old Zatoichi films but none of the heart.
The problems with the script are exacerbated by the bizarre portrayal of Ichi by Shingo Katori of the boy band, SMAP. I could care less about his background if he were either an excellent actor or perfect for the role of Ichi, but alas he is neither. I never thought of Ichi as a handsome young man that’s a clumsy hack with a sword, but that’s the Ichi we’re given here. It’s almost as if Katori couldn’t handle the combat training so they tried to cut around his inabilities. Okay, fair enough, but why does he look like he straining on the toilet in every single closeup? He’s simply trying way too hard for this to have been crafted into a decent performance. Every time he was stumbling and sliding around I found myself wishing for the cool, confident demeanor of Katsu’s Ichi.
The cinematography here is the one place where this film exceeds the originals, but that’s largely a factor of technological advances and bigger budgets. Technically, ZTL is excellent, but so are Battlefield Earth and Waterworld.
If you’re curious about this film, give it a spin. I expect most won’t make it through the first hour. Instead, I’d recommend going back and experiencing the Katsu series of films from the very beginning. If you want something more modern, the Takeshi Kitano version is very good too. Unfortunately, Zatoichi: The Last is not recommended.